One thing I learned last Saturday: Day games and night games are seriously day and night when it comes to shifts in atmosphere, not just because of the different times of day.
Unlike Florida's previous match-ups this season against New Mexico State and East Carolina, hosting Tennessee (and thousands of fans wearing that garish orange) set the gameday buzz at a different level compared to what I experienced over the first couple of home games this fall. This was an SEC game. This is what college football in the South was all about.
And I got the full experience.
Early Morning Biscuits with a Side of Face Time
There was one thing Florida fans wanted to see more than a win over Tennessee last weekend: Tim Tebow.
Fans were lined up to get into the pit for the Tebow-starring SEC Nation in the foggy darkness at 6 a.m., even though the show didn't actually start until 10 a.m. — and yes, I was one of those crazy fans. My roommate and I had woken up at about 4:30 a.m. and left to grab breakfast at about 5. Mind you, I am not a morning person at all, so this was a big deal. Oh, and we were running on two hours of sleep, because we were working on our signs for the show until about 2:00 a.m.
When my alarm went off I thought to myself, "Do I really want to leave the comfort of this bed right now, just for the chance to meet Tebow and possibly get on TV?"
Yes. Yes, I did want to get out of bed for just that.
I will have to say though the parking issue I had a few weeks ago vanished before my eyes when we arrived to campus at 6 a.m. (Granted, it was 6 a.m.) We found a spot a little way down from the stadium and then made our way to the Plaza of the Americas where SEC Nation was filming. Tents lined our walk to to the set, and people were already setting up tailgates. The sun was not even up yet.
I did not understand why these people were up so early — but then I remembered I was doing the exact same thing. It was game day, and like the games before now, game day festivities still had to take place, even if that meant pushing them up a few hours.
The darkness and fog set a weird mood in the early hours of the morning. Everyone had glazed-over eyes; this was a crowd truly trying its best to wake up. The ground was moist and the 73-degree weather made it a bit chilly for us Floridians. SEC Network crew members came around to all the fans to make sure we knew the rules before entering the pit. We weren't even allowed to enter the area until 7, but at 6:30, the crew was nice enough to start blaring music to wake us up and get us excited. Being sleep-deprived and delirious, everyone started singing the tunes together as one — a really nice bonding experience.
As the minutes passed and the sun slowly started to creep up in the sky, the crowd started to grow. People around me were threatening to throw elbows towards the people who were trying to cut in line ahead of those of us who were there earlier. I looked at my roommate to briefly and discreetly discuss our plan of action; we evidently needed to have one. As the crew members opened the gate for everyone to enter, she and I dashed for a corner spot in the front since mostly everyone else wanted the dead middle spots. We had marked our territory, and we weren't going to let anyone push us around.
And, well, I needed a spot up front, considering I'm not exactly tall. Take it as a blessing if you got to stand behind me: Even with me being on my tip-toes to really see over the fence, everybody behind me could still see perfectly without me affecting their line of vision.
The sun was up at this point, but the weather was still slightly overcast and the fog factor was still in full effect. But we were in. And we were ready for everything to get into full swing. Paul Finebaum was already on stage and watching all of us come in like cattle; it seemed as if he was eyeing our every move. The "wanting-to-kill-the-person-next-to-you-for-a-spot" attitude changed to a "we're-in-so-we're-all-BFFs-now" attitude. Everyone was showing each other their clever signs and discussing the Gators in, and we were abuzz to see Tebow; everyone was beyond excited to see him). Several minutes passed as we all stood in our spots, anxiously awaiting his arrival.
Then, at around 8:30 a.m., the man in all his glory was spotted walking towards the bus a couple hundred feet away from where we were. Everyone screamed, even though we only saw him for about 30 seconds. A countdown popped up on screens around us, ticking off the minutes until show time.
The energy ratcheted up a little at this point.
And just like that the countdown went from over an hour to a mere 10 minutes. Music was blasting and crew members were instructing the crowd to get crazy for camera shots. (We did not need instructions.) The production assistants came around to everyone, giving us sponsored sunglasses, beads, and even eye-black stickers.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Tebow was making his way down the line of people to my left and towards me, taking selfies with everyone in his path. I don't really get starstruck when it comes to famous people, but this was different. I've been a Tebow fan for as long as I can remember, and the fact he was a few feet away from me ... well, I freaked out. I was shaking. It was so embarrassing. But I don't even care.
When he came up to me I asked if he could take my phone and take a selfie, since I was already on my tippy-toes to see over the fence, not exactly steady on my feet. He laughed and agreed, taking my phone and taking the selfie. I thanked him and he smiled and said, "You're welcome." It's safe to say I had the biggest and dumbest smile on my face for the remainder of the time I was at SEC Nation.
Little did I know what was to come in the hours ahead.
Joe Tessitore was on stage at this point, introducing his co-hosts. The crowd yelled and clapped for everyone introduced, but "Tebow" chants started to break out as Tessitore saved Tebow for last. Cheesy and clichéd ESPN-type music was playing for everyone being introduced, but when it came time for Tebow, the music stopped — and the "N---as in Paris" beat dropped. Everyone went nuts and screamed so loud for that man, including me. Tebow just laughed it off and waved to the crowd, acknowledging our obvious undying love for him.
The show began, and it was really cool to see how everything worked within the broadcast. As an aspiring sports broadcaster, I was in hog heaven watching it all, despite being packed into a pen with people who were, er, slightly less interested in the intricacies of an ESPN broadcast. There were TVs set up where we could see the live broadcast, and so everyone was trying to figure out which way to shift their signs so they would be in each given shot. Where my roommate and I were standing, we were basically in the wide shot a majority of the show in the bottom left corner. We were receiving texts and Snapchats of our big TV appearance, even though we looked like ants and you couldn't really see us unless you were looking.
During one of the commercial breaks, Matt, the SEC Nation bus driver, told the crowd to stick around for prizes after the show ended. They would be picking winners off whose signs were the best. The prizes included a Gator purse, a Gator wallet, and a green Regions Bank bike.
My sign that I made the night before was good, but not what I thought was good enough to really stand out amongst everyone else's witty signs. I had cut out pictures of the Tebow, Steve Spurrier, and Danny Wuerffel statues that stand in front of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and pasted them to a piece of poster board, then written "Rocky Top: Helping the Gators Build Statues for over 50 Years!"
As the broadcast was coming to a close, and the crew was going around the crowd to find their winners, I saw the crew eyeing me and my sign. Then they walked over to me. "Do you have a bike?" they said. No way. Had I really just won a prize? I mean, my sign was good but I didn't think it was that good. "No," I replied. "Well, you just won one! Come with us so we can get all our winners on stage for a picture."
Excuse me, what?
I just went from sweating my butt off in a huge group of people to getting to go on stage with the anchors and reporters. Oddly, I couldn't even.
I had been chosen along with two other lucky people. The other girl had a sign that read, "Tebow, Homecoming?" but had crossed out Tebow and wrote "Finebaum" above it. The other guy was decked out in orange and blue shoulder pads and stormtrooper helmet: His sign just read #SwampTrooper.
When it came time for our turn to go on stage after the broadcast wrapped up, all my fangirl-giddiness had disappeared. I walked on stage and had a brief conversation with Greg McElroy before making my way over between Tebow and Kaylee Hartung. I then talked to both of them and congratulated them on a good broadcast. Tebow gave me a hug - and I basically freaked out again, but on the inside, since I still had to play it cool - and then we took the picture with the sign winners and the broadcasters.
After the picture was taken I got Tebow to sign my poster. He laughed when he read it and then pulled out a Sharpie to sign it. (Thanks, Dad, for thinking of the idea for the sign.)
I thanked him and I told everyone to have a good day, and before I left the stage Tebow gave me another hug and told me to have a good day as well. It had been an amazing day already and kickoff wasn't even for another three hours.
I kind of forgot everyone was actually there for a football game.
Game Time, and Shame Time
After leaving the set, I found my roommate and we went to pig out at Relish before the game. No burger had ever tasted so good, especially considering I had been standing in the sun for seven hours straight without food. And when a girl's gotta eat, a girl's gotta eat.
From there I went and met up with different groups of my friends, floating from tailgate to tailgate. Walking around in the mid-day Florida heat was taking a beating on me, and I could tell the two hours of sleep was a tactical error. I walked to my car to charge my dying phone and to soak up as much air conditioning as I could. At 3:20, I locked up my car and made my way towards the stadium. Everyone on the streets was doing the same, and the place was still as electric as it had been the whole day. Campus was also seriously packed. UF and UT fans alike were talking massive trash back and forth. I was incredibly excited for kick-off.
This was going to be one of those games. I could sense it in the air.
After fighting my way though the packed gates, I finally got to my seat. By the time I made it there, though, I had a massive head ache — in fact, my whole body was aching. I figured it was just due to lack of sleep, so I shook it off and got ready for the game to get underway.
Once kickoff happened, the place was seriously going insane. The hype of a Florida-Tennessee matchup was matched by the crowd's intensity. As the game went on, my throat started hurting, and my voice was somewhere beyond gone from screaming and yelling all day. My nose was so stuffy that I could barely breathe, and my headache had grown even worse. By the time the game was tied 7-7, I was too light headed to function.
I wanted to stay, but the drunken sorority girls and frat boys falling on top of me constantly were making me think otherwise. I decided to leave the game because I felt as if I would puke if I stayed any longer. On my way out, a couple of the ticket collectors asked me the score; I told them it was tied with about five minutes left in the first quarter.
One said, "oh man, it's going to be a good game." Boy, was he right.
I found my car and sadly made my way back to my apartment. I have never been one of those fans to leave a sports game, no matter how good or bad my team was doing, but, in my mind, I was picking between sleeping in my bed or a hospital bed on Saturday night. I listened to the game on the radio on the drive home, and my hopes started to fall once I heard Tennessee had scored twice in the second quarter to make the score 17-7 before the half.
I got home, changed into an oversized t-shirt, threw my hair up, and placed a wet rag on my head. I felt like complete crap, not only because I apparently had a fever, but because I was mad at myself for leaving the game.
And the game wasn't helping. I watched missed tackle after missed tackle. I watched Will Grier dance around the pocket and throw off his back foot. I witnessed poor officiating. This game was getting really ugly, really fast. When it got to be 20-7 in the third quarter, I tried to remain optimistic for the Gators, but it was getting hard to stay in that state of mind. I would be lying if I told you I didn't slightly give up hope at the end of the third, despite Florida scoring to cut the lead to 20-14. Could they pull off a miracle? That's what I thought it would take.
I was right.
Even though I was basically dying in my bed with a fever, I actually got up and paced around my room a lot during the fourth quarter. I tried to scream at my little TV hanging on my wall but my voice had long since deserted me. I sat on my bed saying my prayers to the college football gods. They were pretty simple: COME ON, GATORS!
And somehow my prayers were answered. I watched as Grier beautifully made the pass to Callaway. My jaw literally dropped. Did that really just happen? My facial expression for the rest of the game was just the shocked emoji. (Or one of them, anyway.) I sat there on my bed and watched as history was being made. I'm pretty sure my heart stopped during UT's field goal attempt in the last seconds of the game. I clenched my pillow, my eyes glued to the TV. C'mon. C'mon. Once the ball went wide right I danced around my room for a solid 10 seconds before I felt light-headed again.
THE GATORS WON. THE GATORS FREAKING WON THE FOOTBALL GAME.
But then I got sad. I left that football game.
Granted, I had 102 legitimate reasons to do so, but I was still pissed at myself. That was one of the greatest Gators games I have ever witnessed, and I more than had the opportunity to be there in person — I was there. What made me even more mad, though, is that other people left that game even though they weren't ill like me.
Trust me: Don't ever leave a game, no matter what the situation is. The game ain't over til it's over, but the fear of missing out turns into the shame of missing out pretty quickly, and it lasts forever.
And as for me, I'll remember to bring a bottle of ibuprofen next time. I may need it when we play Ole Miss — and, hey, I could share some with our players, if need be.